Ask the History Doc: the Merovingians

Ask the History Doc: the Merovingians

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Dear History Doc:

have just finished reading The DaVinci Code. In the book, the author
says there’s a connection between the beginnings of Christianity and
Mary Magdalen, and the Merovingians and their present-day descendants
in France. Who were the Merovingians anyway and were they really that
closely linked to early Christianity?


I Don’t Get It

Dear Don’t Get It,

the History Doc must confess that she did not get it either. The
connection, that is. However, she is prepared to place the Merovingians
in an historical context for you, and perhaps we shall have to settle
for that.

The Merovingians are
considered to have been the first ruling family in France. Although the
first well-known Merovingian was Clovis, the family name derives from
his dimly known ancestor, Merovee. As best we can figure out, Merovee
was a Frankish leader during the first half of the fifth century, but,
at that time, only one of many such warrior leaders.

of the History Doc will no doubt recall that the area that would become
France was in something of a mess for much of the fifth and even the
sixth centuries, as various groups struggled for geographical and
political gain. It was largely thanks to Clovis (c. 466-511) that the
chaos was at least somewhat suppressed, since that military ruler
managed both to conquer most of his important opponents and to curry
the favor of the Church. By the time of his death, a chunk of territory
primarily in the center, east, and north of present-day France had been
brought under tenuous control by the Merovingians.

most of the rules and precedents that would later lend some degree of
permanent stability to the monarchy were still very much in flux at
that point. Since the custom of primogeniture had not yet been
established, Clovis, who produced four sons, divided his territory
among them. This division led not only to conflict among his heirs but
also to the beginnings of what might be called a “German” part of the
Merovingian holdings versus a “Gallo-Roman” part.

one of Clovis’ heirs managed to reunite the territory, but the residue
of a rivalry between the areas then known as Neustrie to the west and
Austrasie to the east remained to create problems. In the sixth
century, the rivalry produced a shocking scandal during the reign of
Sigebert I of Austrasie, when there was a struggle between Brunehaut,
his wife , and Frédégonde, the wife of the ruler of Neustrie—but that
is a story for another day.

Merovingians never really succeeded in a permanent unification effort,
and by the seventh century they were in decline. They faced the rising
power of their nobles, along with the distressing repetitive pattern of
minor rulers who died leaving behind minor heirs. Historically,
dynasties that produce only minors to inherit the throne are setting
themselves up for trouble. There are always court rivalries over the
control of the young king and, in addition, enemies within and without
regard a period of minority as the ideal time to take over the country.

addition to their problems with minorities, these so-called Merovingian
rois fainéants faced a formidable series of rivals waiting in the
wings—the future Carolingians. Once these capable and ambitious rivals
became Mayors of the Palace, they worked tirelessly to advance their
power, ingratiating themselves with the Church and providing the only
successful military might available. It was the Carolingian Mayor
Charles Martel, of course, who defeated the invading Islamic forces at
Tours in 732, leading to the recognition of his son, Pepin the Short
(d. 768), as ruler instead of merely Mayor.

an end to the rival Merovingians, being crowned, and starting a new
royal dynasty should have come down to us as major historical
accomplishments, but poor Pepin the Short has always been eclipsed in
the history books by his more famous offspring, Charlemagne, who became
one of the bright lights of the early Middle Ages and therefore gets
most of the good press.

And so,
Don’t Get It, that is the historical stuff about the Merovingians in a
nutshell. Not much is known about these folks until they showed up to
connect themselves to what became France. As to the connection between
these Frankish leaders and anything (or anyone) related to early
Christianity, your guess is as good as mine—or as the novelist’s, for
that matter.

Jean England
Freeland is a now-retired professor of history presently living on a
real farm raising real fruit and veggies. After struggling to learn
French for four years, she has at last reached the point where,
whenever she visits Paris and actually speaks the
language, the natives no longer flee screaming. She considers this one of the major accomplishments of her life.